Why are British soldiers mostly portrayed as humorous sarcastics in WW2 films and games? Were they like that back in the day?

How Harry met Spike.

When the ten ton 7.2” howitzer fired, the recoil drove it out of the gunpit and over the cliff, nearly hitting Harry’s radio truck. A few moments later, Spike ran up and said “Has anyone seen a gun?” Harry replied “What colour?”.

7.2” howitzer

If you don’t get the joke, or you’ve never heard of the Goons, you might find our humour difficult.

British humour has always carried a strong element of satire at the absurdity of life. Common themes include sarcasm, irony, understatement, self-deprecation, the mocking of authority and puns. Often delivered deadpan rather than telegraphed as funny, which can sometimes make it confusing for non-Britishers (excluding Aussies and Kiwis).

Whilst it would be wrong to suggest that there was not an element of propaganda in these portrayals, there was also a strong underlying current of truth or they would not have rung true with contemporary audiences.

Irony and black humour in conflict are a valuable aid to morale, allowing the discussion of topics that are no laughing matter and providing a safety valve that helps soldiers to bond and endure in dire conditions.

I should say that black humour is found in all armies and, for instance, Bill Mauldin’s US Army cartoons are very much direct descendents of Bruce Bairnsfather.

Bill Mauldin

However, black humour is absolutely foundational in the British forces. After all, today’s British Army Rumour Service is called ARRSE (ass for the Yanks).

Genuine, front-line, non-propaganda, humour was to be found everywhere but WW1 humour is preserved in publications such as the Wipers (Ypres) Times and remains very similar to this day. Some examples:

Notice the mocking of authority.

The joke is in the officer’s offensive dress sense (his socks). Mocking authority again

Bruce Bairnsfather’s cartoons were a great morale booster.

The use of understatement and irony.

Similar humour alive and well in WW2 – Pilot Officer Prune.

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